Ritual and Narrative: Texts in Performance in the Ancient Near East

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 13, Fall 2015.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies

Photo of a woman in an outdoor area with plants and trees in the background. Professor Beate Pongratz-Leisten The workshop Ritual and Narrative: Texts in Performance in the Ancient Near East, held at the end of the spring research seminar on ancient Near Eastern ritual texts, investigated the relationship between ritual texts and ritual performance. As in previous years, the workshop included four ancient Near Eastern specialists from around the world who are on the cusp of research related to ritual and performance. Their expertise spans nearly three millennia, multiple languages and cultures, and multiple text genres.

Textual records related to ritual performance are multifaceted but often limited in the types of information they reveal. They may emphasize particular aspects of a ritual performance but rarely render anything approximating a whole picture. Extant texts include records of, scripts for, or speculations about ritual performance, reflecting the various perceived functions of texts in antiquity. Motivations for writing down a particular ritual were, it seems, wide-ranging. An example of ritual recording for administrative purposes is offered by the various versions of the Late Bronze Age (13th century BCE) “Installation of the High Priestess of the Storm God” at the city of Emar (modern Tell Meskene in Syria). As discussed by Daniel Fleming (NYU), the surviving texts reflect multiple occasions during which a new priestess was installed. The versions differ primarily with respect to the specific allocations or payments made to the various cultic participants, especially the diviner who oversaw ritual proceedings and maintained the archive that housed the ritual texts. One of the central motivations for these various versions then may indeed have been to record the differing amounts of these allocations. While the diviner was especially interested in payments, references to songs or other verbal performances are rare. In fact, the ritual text recording the installation of the maš’artu priestess contains the only spelled out verbal recitation. As the installation festival of the Storm God’s priestess lasted nine days, it is hard to imagine that it was not accompanied by prayers and incantations as known from other Mesopotamian consecration rituals.

On a smooth, circular stone or ceramic object, a rectangular band across the middle shows four human figures lined up in front of altar and an object made of four large rounded blocks stacked, each slightly smaller than the one below. The disc is damaged at the bottom and in the figural area. It is coated with a yellow pigment or glaze, which has worn off in some areas. Enheduana Disc from Ur, ca. 2300 BCE. Photo courtesy of Beate Pongratz-Leisten. While our seminar focused mainly on Akkadian ritual texts from the second and first millennium BCE, two Sumerologists joined the workshop to discuss evidence from the third millennium and first half of the second millennium BCE. Piotr Michalowski (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) pointed out that while there is hardly any evidence of ritual texts before 1740 BCE, the layout of important ancient city-states such as Uruk and Ur in southern Mesopotamia with their monumental ceremonial institutions reveal that ritual lay at the core of the structure of ancient cities. Inscribed in the topography of the city states these institutions reflect a notion of kingship as a form of ritual as much as a political institution. Aside from the local ritual texts dated to ca. 2450 BCE found at Ebla (Tell Mrdikh) in Northern Syria, third millennium textual records related to ritual performance include only incantations. Incantations are related to therapeutic or exorcistic rituals and are attested from Fara and Abu Salabikh in southern Mesopotamia. Duplicates from Ebla attest to the dynamics of the spread of cuneiform culture during the third millennium BCE. Michalowski further emphasized that during the first half of the second millennium incantations may have been performed in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Elamite, suggesting that the emphasis was on the rhythmic patterning of the languages rather than comprehensibility.

The discussion of language use in ritual continued with the talk of Paul Delnero (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore). Delnero shifted the focus to ritual performance in the daily and festive cult, discussing the central aspect of mourning as expressed not only in lamenting the death of family members but the destruction of entire communities as extant in Sumerian cultic lamentations mourning the destruction of former cultic centers of Sumer. Cultic lamentations were performed by lamentation singers (Sumerian gala; Akkadian kalû) in an artificial Sumerian language known as Emesal. While cultic lamentations were written down only at the end of the 18th century, attestations for the gala-priests exist as early as the third millennium BCE. Gudea’s famous hymn celebrating the restoration of the temple of the god Ningirsu in Lagash mentions three different kinds of drums that played continuously to ensure the successful and effective performance of ritual. Further, Delnero showed that Old Babylonian Emesal-songs were written phonetically in order to aid the oral
performance of the lamentations by bringing out the pronunciation of the words and thus enhancing the effectiveness of language and its ability to evoke emotions. As the content of the lamentations dealt with the appeasing of the gods, they were also of communicative nature. An important point made by Delnero was that the code-switching from Emesal to Sumerian in phonetically written texts did not reflect the performance style; rather the expert knew the respective Emesal of the Sumerian text to be performed which needed not be written down.

Uri Gabbay (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) shifted the focus to the Late Babylonian period (5th century BCE) and discussed the highly complicated matter of theological and mythological implications of ritual performance by drawing on Assyro-Babylonian commentary texts that explain ritual performance. Gabbay focused on the late first millennium BCE Achaemenid ritual for the fabrication of the lilissudrum from the hide of a bull, a musical instrument attested since the third millennium BCE in cultic performance. He used first millennium BCE commentaries to the creation account Enuma elish to demonstrate that the writing of this instrument (dlilissu, with the determinative for divinity) not only meant that it was considered divine, but that it was identified with the heart of the god Enlil. Enlil belonged to the older generation of gods who were demoted by the Babylonian god Marduk. Whereas the ritual instruction only says “you will burn its (the bull’s) heart” before the lilissu-drum, explanatory commentaries interpret this ritual action as reflecting the killing of Enlil. The playing of the drum evoked the presence of the slain god and the beating of his heart.

The workshop was overwhelmingly well received and greatly contributed to everyone’s learning. The discussions focused on the connections between the periods, unrecorded aspects of ritual like musical performance, and the efficacy of language. Attendees included students from Johns Hopkins University, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the New York City area, plus members of the public.